Before he embarked upon his attempt to make the ‘ultimate horror movie’ in the form of 1960’s startling ‘Jigoku’ (‘Hell’) – a film so ambitious that many claim it played a significant role in bankrupting the financially fragile Shintoho studios – director Nobuo Nakagawa had already made a name for himself as an important contributor to the rather marginal field of Japanese horror cinema, shooting a series of low budget programmers during the years 1957-59 that arguably represent the first conscious attempts to incorporate more modern (eg, Western) horror tropes into the highly formalised tradition of classical Japanese ghost stories.
Nakagawa’s films ran the gamut of popular horror themes, both Japanese (‘Yotsuya Kaidan’, 1959) and foreign (‘Lady Vampire’, also 1959), but today we’re going to be looking at his take on the ubiquitous bakeneko / ghost cat mythos, ‘Bôrei Kaibyô Yashiki’, variously tanslated as ‘Mansion of the Ghost Cat’, ‘Black Cat Mansion’, or my preferred combination of the two options, ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’.
As has previously been discussed on this blog in reference to Yoshihiro Ishikawa’s Ghost Cat of Otama Pond (1960), variations on such stories seem to have exercised a persistent hold over Japanese filmmakers and audiences, with a history of bakeneko titles stretching back to the silent era, and, more pertinently to the film at hand, those who have read that review will also recall that, prior to making his solo debut with ‘..Otama Pond’, Ishikawa had previously worked as Nakagawa’s assistant on most of his pre-‘Jigoku’ horror films.
Whilst the ‘master & protégée’ relationship between the two men must be thus acknowledged, the sad truth is that my prior viewing of ‘..Otama Pond’ lowered my subsequent enjoyment of ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’, simply due to the fact that, for a sensation hungry modern viewer at least, Ishikawa’s film is basically much better – a wilder, stranger, more ambitious and visually splendid take on the ghost-cat formula than that achieved by his sensei a few years earlier, even as it covers about 75% of the same ground, stylistically speaking.
This is not to imply that ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’ is anything less than a perfect satisfactory (and indeed somewhat innovative) example of bakeneko cinema of course. In fact, its deficiencies in comparison to the later film likely stem mainly from its more obvious origins as a rushed, cash-strapped b-movie, rather than from any lack of ambition on the part of its makers, and as such, it’s probably best if I nix the unfair comparison between the two films for now and allow ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’ stand on its own not-inconsiderable merits.
It certainly gets off to wonderfully atmospheric start, that’s for sure. Subjective POV torch beams prowl the darkened corridors of a deserted Tokyo hospital, taking us eventually to the skeleton and specimen jar filled lab of a doctor who is apparently pulling an all-nighter. Who could that be on the stairs, he wonders, as the heavy footfalls of whoever we were following with the torch creak the floorboards outside. This, the doctor muses to himself, reminds him of certain events that transpired six years ago, and, like some doomed noir protagonist awaiting a terrible fate, he calmly sits down and lights a cigarette, awaiting the arrival of his sinister visitor.
Cue flashback to six years earlier. The doc’s wife is suffering from TB, and, to aid her recovery, the couple have left Tokyo and moved back to her familial home on the Southern island of Kyushu. For reasons that never really become clear, the doctor’s brother-in-law has secured them lodgings in, uh - a shunned, clifftop haunted house in which no one has lived for over a century. (That his brother-in-law might be somewhat of a jerk is a possibility the doctor may wish to consider, but it is not something the filmmakers choose to dwell upon here.)
As you might well have expected, upon moving into their new home, the couple and their household almost immediately experience all manner of spooky goings-on, and in particular, they become subject to frequent visitations from a particularly persistent and terrible variation on the inevitable kaidan white-haired-old-lady ghost. Not even so much a ghost in this case in fact, but a full-blown monster of apparently palpable form, this bastard hag proceeds in short order to kill the family dog and terrify the nurse who is helping the doctor establish a new clinic, before repeatedly utilising prank phone calls and disguised voices to gain entry to the house, on each occasion making a bee-line straight for the long-suffering wife, whom she proceeds to strangle to the point of near-death, only to disappear when interrupted at the last moment.
Understandably unnerved by all this grim incident, the doctor temporarily puts his rationalist principles on hold and pays a visit to a venerable local Buddhist priest, who promptly makes with the old “ah yes, I remember the dark legends connected to that dreadful old house..” routine, prompting (as per the formula of every other bakeneko movie I’ve seen to date) another flashback within the flashback, this time taking us back to (I assume) the Edo Period – a change accompanied by a corresponding shift to colour photography.
Up to this point, it must be said that ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’ has been directed with great skill. The opening creep though the hospital and the couple’s initial investigation of the haunted house both utilise the inherently terrifying combination of smooth, slow camera movements and wide, empty spaces that would later be perfected by Masaki Kobayashi in his epic ‘Kwaidan’ (1964), and even minor incidents such as a moment when the couple’s car is run off the road by a stray cat are conveyed using jarring, Hitchcock-esque mini-montages that further add to the somewhat ‘Carnival of Souls’-esque sense of icy, detached unease.If, as I’ve always thought, the key to creating a genuinely scary story is to present a world that seems sinister and somehow off-balance even before anything spooky happens, then it’s safe to say that Nakagawa succeeds here with aplomb.
It is a shame then that once the action shifts to the past and the photography switches to a rather drab variety of colour, this carefully wrought atmosphere largely vanishes. Suddenly, Nakagawa’s direction becomes blandly formal, whilst the obviously set-bound backdrops take on an unnatural, theatrical feel and the acting becomes stiff and melodramatic. As with many older Japanese period dramas, it sometimes feels more as if we're watching a local theatre reenactment of a well-known legend than an engaging piece of cinema.
Anyway, the flashback story here chiefly concerns the abuses of power perpetrated by one Lord Shogen, a wealthy local daimyo (and patriarch of the future haunted mansion of course), who is, to put it mildly, a bit of an arsehole.
When we first meet Shogen, he is on the verge of slaughtering his most trusted servant for some minor infringement of protocol (the servant’s life is only spared after Shogen’s upstanding son intervenes), and the Lord’s inordinately aggressive and cowardly behaviour only gets worse from thereon in.
In brief then, dark powers of a vengeful and supernatural nature are eventually evoked to deal with this disagreeable fellow following an incident in which he summons a young samurai and renowned Go master to his chambers to tutor him in the finer points of the game. Unfortunately however, the young man makes the fatal error of playing Shogen in a fair contest, refusing to let the diamyo cheat and replay his moves, with the inevitable result that lord grumpy-pants becomes so irate that he eventually snaps and, grabbing his katana, redecorates his dayroom with the samurai’s blood.
When Shogen subsequently has the audacity to avoid responsibility for the killing by claiming that the young man instantly left for Kyoto to further study Go technique after becoming embarrassed when the Lord defeated him in the game, the samurai’s blind mother – for whom he cared and provided sole financial support – cannily disbelieves him, and, visiting the daimyo to try to discover what actually happened to her son, her suspicions turn to futile rage after the hateful old bastard adds insult to injury by taking the opportunity to rape her.
As she contemplates her sorry state, the blind woman is visited by a ghostly vision of her son, who confirms the truth of her suspicions about what happened to him, and, seeing no way forward, she clutches her beloved pet cat to her bosom and uses a dagger to take her own life, calling on the spirit of her cat to execute her vengeance from beyond the grave. Before her blood has even dried of course, it’s ghost-cat-a-go-go for the folks in the mansion on the hill.
One thing I like about the avenging spirits in these bakeneko stories (and indeed in Asian ghost stories more generally) is how absolutely ruthless they are, in comparison to their more genteel, ‘poetic justice’-inclined Western counterparts. In this case for instance, all of the evil in the story has emanated directly from Lord Shogen himself. His mother, son and servants are all portrayed as sympathetic characters, as much the victims of his cruelty as anyone else - but just try telling the ghost-cat that! The dying woman specifically issued her curse against the bad man plus his entire family, his household and his descendants, and ghost-cat’s not taking any prisoners.
Indeed, the first thing the avenging ghost does is possess the body of the daimyo’s elderly mother, transforming her not only into the image of the wild, white-haired hag seen in the film’s present day section, but into an actual anthropomorphic cat-monster! Regrettably for anyone still taking ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’ seriously by this point, the result of this transformation is frankly hilarious, prompting a ten minute segment in which the film goes absolutely berserk.
“My mother took a carp from the pond and went under the house?!” exclaims the daimyo at one point when a servant relates details of his mother’s disturbing cat-like behaviour, and by the time the cat-mother – her costume complete with pointy, fluffy ears that spring upward when she raises her head – begins busting out the familiar J-horror lady-ghost device of using an invisible fishing rod to draw her victims toward her like a sci-fi tractor beam, even the most determinedly straight-faced viewers will be hard-pressed to suppress a few WTF-ish guffaws.
As the ghost-cat’s rampage reaches its bloody conclusion, Nakagawa utilises prototypes of many of the quasi-psychedelic visual effects later employed by Ishikawa In ‘..Otama Pond’, with everything from double-exposures and giant, looming cat shadows to random, Bava-esque coloured gel lighting wantonly thrown around, to pleasantly psychedelic effect. Though such effects are neither as extensively nor effectively used as in the later film (here for instance, the coloured lighting simply consists of spinning, multi-hued spot-lights that come out of nowhere to assault the tormented Lord Shogen), this is all still jolly good fun, needless to say.
Thankfully, this excessive and unhinged atmosphere is to a certain extent maintained when we return to the black & white ‘present day’, wherein a charm proffered by the priest and the disinterment of the mouldering skeleton of the Go master (who had been bricked up Poe-style within the walls of the house) helps the doctor and his wife return their angry revenant to its resting place, in a wind-swept, lightning-riddled finale that remains very enjoyable – at least until a thoroughly disappointing bummer of a contrived happy ending follows
Flawed though it may be, I don’t believe that ‘Ghost Cat Mansion’s deficiencies are *quite* serious enough to ruin the good feeling generated by its highlights. Although budgetary contraints and tonal inconsistencies mean that no one’s ever likely to single it out as a masterpiece, it is nonetheless a wild and wooly bit of quintessential Japanese b-horror, rich in authentically creepy moments and full-on weirdness that fans of the particular ‘feel’ generated by this kind of thing are liable to cherish.